I came across a retro postcard of the Western Motor Inn. The neon sign hovers above the swimming pool where kids are splashing. The parking lot is filled with the giant bomb-proof American cars our grandparents drove. The setting is post-war America, 50s or 60s. The postcard encapsulates the American Dream: the freedom of the open road, ownership of shiny new automobiles, the nuclear family, leisure and resources to vacation and enjoy life.
That same motel today is a rundown, decrepit crack-haven filled with transients. The juxtaposition of this dramatic decay with the image in the postcard is the perfect metaphor for the erosion of American values, as believed by many people. America, once the shining beacon of freedom and virtue, is being desecrated by big government regulations and those with a secular, godless agenda, where hedonism is the authority. On the one hand—despite how historically inaccurate it may be—I can empathize with the sentiment of the lost “good old days.” On the other hand, using that nostalgic measure as a way to view today’s world, is misguided.
There are plentiful examples of the traditional values America, the good old days: John Wayne movies, Leave it to Beaver TV shows, Beach Boys music, etc. When traditional values are mentioned in a nostalgic sense, they most often seem to refer to the Old West or to post World War II America. Themes from America’s early days consist of rugged individualism, Manifest Destiny, survival of the fittest, general manliness. Post-war themes from the 1950s include the happy nuclear family and fairly strict gender roles, morality and God first, innocence, materialism, American supremacy and might. Blending these epochs together paints the picture of the American Dream, pursued by a clean-cut white male who is staunch in his moral/religious beliefs, provides for his stay-at-home wife and two kids, and owns a house with the latest gadgets. Doors on homes do not need to be locked because people are good, neighbors say hi to each other, local police officers, fire fighters, and mailmen are known by name, and life feels secure, predictable, and safe. Common statements used to describe this nostalgic yearning today: Make America Great Again, Take America Back, The Way America Used to Be.
What does today’s society look like to the people who long for Traditional America? Kids with blue hair, out-of-wedlock childbearing, Mexicans hopping the border and taking jobs, feminine men making out on prime-time television, lazy people coasting on welfare, American industry being shipped overseas, rap music corrupting the youth, Muslims trying to destroy America, government stealing people’s hard-earned money, kids killing kids and having kids, pornography displayed as mainstream culture, no religious (Christian) freedom, and being force-fed all of this by the government, media, and popular culture. I said I could empathize. It’s easy to categorize everything as black and white, liberal versus conservative, Right versus Left, if you’re not with me, you’re against me. But honestly, for people who really believe times were better when America was more homogenous (whatever the motivations for that reasoning), I can understand why today’s society feels so vile. The level of what is acceptable in mainstream culture today is shocking compared to even a few decades ago. Economic shifts have eroded traditional manufacturing that provided stable jobs for much of Middle America. Videos of ISIS chopping off Westerner’s heads are clearly displayed on TV. Times have changed. It’s human nature to fear others, change, and uncertainty. To fight this change, however, by attempting to legislate a version of moral righteousness is misguided and not rooted in reality, in my opinion.
First, these “good old days” were not good for people who, let’s face it, were not white. Much of society was excluded. Old West days saw the suppression, persecution, and omission of Native American, black, and women’s interests. The move west for land and frontier establishment was accomplished by directly trampling on the “others” that stood in the way. Not much had really changed even by America’s glory days in the 1950s. Segregation and a lack of freedoms for minorities, gays, and women continued overtly. Is a return to this era what is meant by the “Take America Back” rhetoric?
Second, the eroding values people talk about with gays, nontraditional families, and peculiar personal expression were present back in the Leave it To Beaver neighborhoods. It was just suppressed. News flash: there were gay people in the 1950s too. Many of these so called perfect little nuclear families were miserable behind closed doors. Drunk fathers still beat their wives and kids, stay-at-home mothers felt imprisoned with zero options for pursuing careers; shit, people’s parents were secretly gay. The difference is what was outwardly acceptable in society and shown on TV and in movies. And that’s exactly the problem: the people today who wax poetic about the good old days and echo sentiments about wanting to Take America Back point to the false representation of a Leave it to Beaver society where everything appears orderly and perfect.
I have no problem with people desiring a safe and predictable society where everybody has a strong moral compass and works hard and supports their families. My beef is with trying to legislate a mythical past that did not really exist. I swear some politicians, with the support of their constituents, believe that being in anything but a hetero-nuclear family, living in anything but a single-family house, and being anything but a Christian, is un-American. People don’t choose the family into which they are born. Divorces happen. People are gay. People have different tastes. Spare me the self-righteousness and accept the diversity that is human life. Change is constant. Change is inevitable. Pretending like America can revert back to a mythical rose-colored past is disingenuous, and frankly, pretty dangerous. The Western Motor Inn may experience great success in the future, but it will not be as a brand new motel occupied by white middle class families. Times have changed. It may first need to be re-purposed or torn down and redeveloped.